Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Awe as an emotion
What is awe? Why does it occur? What is its impact? How can awe be cultivated?
- 1 Overview
- 2 What is Awe?
- 3 History
- 4 Theories and Research
- 5 Conclusion
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Awe involves perceiving the presence of something powerful, along with associated feelings of submission (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Awe also involves a difficulty in comprehension, along with associated feelings of confusion, surprise, and wonder. We now propose a prototype approach to awe based on these two elements.
What is Awe?
Awe as an emotion remains unexplored in comparison to the rest of the emotion field. It may be considered obsolete in comparison to the larger range of human emotions, perhaps through the reasoning that it is rather inexperienced. The subject has been mostly discussed within philosophy and religion, including Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, and Ralph Waldo Emerson (Mikulak, 2015). In a 2003 study on the scrutiny between observing emotions, Keltner and Haidt observed that Awe was not scrutinized as directly as other similar emotions. “The field of emotion research is almost silent with respect to awe. Few emotion theorists consider awe in their taxonomies, and those who do, have done little to differentiate from other states,” explained Keltner and Haidt (2003) .
Experiences of awe have been studied throughout history from many different perspectives. It is written about in different religions. It also sparked interest in the behavioural field, with many philosophers, sociologists, and more importantly psychologists touching on the subject. Albeit, very lightly.
Awe in religion
Religion and spirituality is often noticed as the oldest form of philosophy, in terms of viewing the self and experiencing life. Life is seen through religion as a gift from god, and this relationship between god and humans is a spiritual high power. Experiences with certain gods are told through stories and many of these stories encompass awe as an emotion experienced through unbelievable events. The earliest written form of awe is seen through Hinduism (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). The story of Bhagavadgita tells the story of a man named Arjuna. The Hindu god named Krishna gave Arjuna a “Cosmic eye” that allowed him to see the entire universe, including gods in their purest form, many different suns, and infinite time and space. He was filled with amazement and his hair stood on end. Disoriented, he struggled to understand the wonders he witnessed. “Things never seen before I have seen, and ecstatic is my joy; yet fear-and-trembling perturb my mind.”
Awe in philosophy
One of the main puzzles of awe is that it is so easily felt in nonsocial situations (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). The most systematic early treatment of an awe-like aesthetic emotion can be found in Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s dissertation on the sublime. Burke defined sublime as the feeling of expanded thought and greatness of mind that is produced by literature, poetry, painting, and landscapes (Burke, 1990). Burke’s treatment of the sublime advances our discussion of awe in two ways. First, Burke theorised that two properties contribute to stimuli with the capacity to produce the sublime experience. The first is power. Burke (1990) writes: “In short, wherever we find strength, and in what light soever we look upon power, we shall all along observe the sublime the concomitant of terror”. Power, and in particular the power to destroy and control the perceiver's will, accounts for why certain entities are more evocative of the sublime experience than others. The second stimulus property that produces the sublime experience is obscurity. Objects that are clear, anticipated, and certain in their origin, form, and design, Burke reasoned, do not produce the sublime experience (Burke, 1990). For example, obscure images in painting are more likely to produce sublime feelings that are clearly rendered images. Burke (1990) advances our discussion of awe in a second important way by directing attention to a number of states that are close relatives of sublime experience. These include milder feelings of beauty, admiration, astonishment, reverence, and respect.
Awe in sociology
Sociological research locates awe within power dynamics and the maintenance of the social order. Sociological awe is best-explained and theorised in terms of political leadership, charisma, and how they relate to each other. Max Weber (1978) noted that throughout history social groups tend to settle into patriarchal bureaucratic modes of organisation which are fairly stable. But in times of crisis people sometimes overthrow these stable forms of power, transferring their allegiance to a charismatic leader who awes the masses by performing miracles of acts of heroism. For example, one of the most influential leaders in the history of politics, Adolf Hitler, was a charismatic and awe inspiring leader. Historians have noted his hypnotic effect on both large and small groups. Weber (1978) stated the effect of group awe within a political situation when he wrote that “charisma, in it’s most potent forms, disrupts rational rule as well as tradition altogether and overturns all notions of society.” Such political and religious leaders, such as, Buddha, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Mahatma Ghandi, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela are perfect examples of how a single charismatic person can stir the souls of thousands, inspiring awe and reprogramming them to take on heroic and self-sacrificing missions. Emile Durkheim (Durkheim, 1972; Giddens, 1972) theorised about two kinds of social affects. A first class, including love, fear, and respect, binds one individual to others. The objects of these emotions are individual concerns, such as an individual’s safety, or position relative to others. A second class binds the individual to social entities, such as communities and nations. Here, the object of the emotion is collective concerns. Within this second class of emotions, Durkheim considered feelings that closely resemble awe. Some collective emotions have transformative powers; they change individual’s attitudes and inspire them to follow something larger than themselves (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). In Durkheim’s rewritten article, Giddens (1972) writes that “a man who experiences such sentiments feels that he is dominated by forces which he does not recognise as his own, but is led by following the collectivity.” Durkheim suggests the experience of awe aids conformity to any group that one is inspired by.
Awe in psychology
Psychology has had surprisingly little to say about awe. This may be because it has not yet been shown to have a distinctive facial expression. Only two major psychologists have offered detailed accounts of awe: McDougall (1910), and Maslow (1964). McDougall focused on admiration, which he described as a binary compound of “wonder” and “power”. Describing people’s feelings towards an object of admiration, he stated that, “we are humbled by it’s presence and in the case of a person whom we intensely admire, we become shy, like a child in the presence of an adult stranger ... The perception that we are in the presence of a superior power, something greater than ourselves.”
Maslow (1964) listed 25 features of peak experiences. These include: disorientation in time and space, ego transcendence and self-forgetfulness; a perception that the world is good, beautiful, and desirable; feeling passive, receptive, and humble; a sense that polarities and dichotomies have been transcended or resolved; and feelings of being lucky, fortunate, or graced.
More recent emotion theorists have offered general definitions of awe, but have done little research. Lazarus (1991) treated awe as an ambiguous negative state that varies in valence depending on context and appraisal. Ekman (1992) posited that awe may be a distinct emotion but said little about its elicitors, meanings, or expressive behaviours. Izard (1997) suggested that awe is an intense variant of interest, and that it motivates curiosity and exploration. Frijda (1986) discussed wonder rather than awe, which he linked to surprise and amazement, and interpreted as a passive, receptive mode of attention in the presence of something unexpected. Across disciplines, theorists agree that awe involves being in the presence of something powerful, along with associated feelings of submission. Awe also involves a difficulty in comprehension, along with associated feelings of confusion, surprise, and wonder (Keltner & Haidt, 2003).
Theories and Research
Keltner and Haidt's theory of vastness and accommodation
Keltner and Haidt (2003) propose two elements in their approach to awe; perceived vastness, and accommodation. Thistheory accounts for events that trigger awe, which include religious encounters, charismatic political leaders, natural objects, and even patterns of darkness and light. Their theory also allows for experiences of awe that can be both profoundly positive, and terrifyingly negative. The first of the two elements of awe is vastness; briefly explained as anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self, or the self’s ordinary level of experience (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Accommodation refers to Piaget’s process of mental structures, of which can not assimilate a new experience (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969). Accommodation brings together many insights about awe, such that it involves confusion and obscurity, and that it is heightened in times of crisis, when existing traditions and knowledge structures do not suffice (Burke, 1990; Weber, 1978). Keltner and Haidt (2003) stress that awe involves a need for accommodation, which can sometimes go unsatisfied. The success of one’s attempt at accommodation may partially explain why awe can be both terrifying when the individual fails to understand said experience, and enlightening when one succeeds. Emotions without these two elements are then best described in other ways. For example, Keltner and Haidt (2003) suggest that surprise involves accommodation without vastness, and that deference involves vastness without accommodation. Keltner and Haidt therefore propose that vastness and accommodation are the two central themes of awe.
Vladimir Konečni's extension on vastness and accommodation
Vladimir Konečni (2005) extended on the theory of vastness and accommodation by arguing that people can only experience awe when they are not in actual physical danger. Konečni (2005) theorised that the evolutionary origins of awe were from unexpected encounters with natural wonders. Because of this evolutionary perspective, Konečni (2005) argued that high-status people should feel more often awe than low-status people. However, this hypothesis has not yet been tested.
Theory of the self in regards to Awe
A third theory incorporates the self, in relation to the environment and hypothesises that awe serves to draw attention away the self, and toward the environment (Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman, 2007). This occurs as a way to help increase systematic, accommodative processing when in the presence of novel and complex stimuli that cannot be assimilated by current knowledge structures.
Despite the effect of awe on individuals being almost amazing at times, we see little to no research on the actual topic. Richard Lazarus (1994) stated in his article on Emotion and Adaption that, given awe and wonder’s importance and emotional power, it is remarkable that little scientific attention has been paid to aesthetic experience as a source of emotion in our lives (Lazarus, 1994). Research on awe is still in it’s early stages even today, yet there has been quite a bit of focus on describing awe physically, and the actual experience, as well as social consequence in terms of helping behaviour, and susceptibility to persuasion in weak messages.
A survey study conducted by Shiota, Keltner, and Mossman (2007) asked participants to write about a time they had felt awe. The results showed that the awe was induced mostly by nature and art/music. Yet none of the participants had described the negative emotions of awe, and this can summarize that awe with fear is a completely different emotion together. In the same study by Shiota, Keltner, and Mossman (2007), the researchers had participants write about a time that they had experienced natural beauty (awe condition), or accomplishment (pride condition). When describing the condition of natural beauty, participants were more likely to noted that they were unaware of day-to-day concerns, felt the presence of something greater, didn’t want the experience to end, felt connected with the world, and felt small or insignificant.
Research into the physical, non-verbal reactions to awe has also been conducted. Shiota, Campos, and Keltner (2003) asked participants to remember a time they felt awe and to express the emotion non-verbally. Using this method, they observed that awe is often displayed through raised inner eyebrows, widened eyes, and open, slightly drop-jaw mouths (Shiota, Campos, & Keltner, 2003).
Many theorists agree that awe is perceived in the presence of powerful experiences. Whether it be a surreal experience of nature's beauty, vastness, or raw power, or art in its purest abstract form. Although no specific facial expression has been determined (Shiota, Campos, & Keltner, 2003), it is understandable that each person's perception of awe is what makes it different to other emotions such as surprise or fear. Our knowledge of awe may be quite limited, it may be because of the limited ways to research the emotion, but it can also be said that the unknown is apart of what awe is. The emotion is the feeling of difficulty in comprehension, and that may be why emotion is so difficult to research.
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Konečni, V. (2005) The aesthetic trinity: awe, being moved, and thrills. Bulletin of Psychology and the Arts, 5(2), 27 – 44.
Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaption. New York: Oxford University Press.
Maslow, A. H. (1964). Religion, values, and peak-experiences. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
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Shiota, Michelle; Campos, Belinda; Keltner, Dacher (2003). "The Faces of Positive Emotion: Prototype Displays of Awe, Amusement, and Pride". Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1000 (1): 296–299.
Shiota, Michelle; Keltner, Dacher; Mossman, Amanda (2007). "The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept". Cognition and Emotion. 21(5): 944–963
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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QyVZrV3d3o} By Nicholas Humphrey, 22 May 2013